IN a televised speech introducing the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Carl Sagan’s TV series “Cosmos,” President Obama used a metaphor that is both familiar and troubling:
“America has always been a nation of fearless explorers. We dream bigger and reach farther than others imagine. That’s the spirit of discovery that Carl Sagan captured in the original ‘Cosmos.’ Today, we’re doing everything we can to bring that same sense of possibility to a new generation, because there are new frontiers to explore and we need Americans eager to explore them. There are no limits.”
This language is familiar because almost every president since Calvin Coolidge has claimed a special relationship between Americans and a metaphorical “frontier of science.” It is troubling because of the historical baggage it subtly imprints on its listeners.
The metaphor of the scientific frontier barely existed before the end of the 19th century. At the very moment when America’s literal frontier had disappeared before its relentless westward advance, historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously proclaimed the significance of the frontier to America’s national character.
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To relieve the anxiety of a people who were just realizing that unlimited growth was unsustainable, Turner assured his fellow citizens that they would find a new outlet for their indomitable spirit and insatiable appetite for development: “In the place of old frontiers of wilderness, there are new frontiers of unwon fields of science.”
In 1945, presidential science adviser Vannevar Bush helped initiate the National Science Foundation with a similar argument in a report called “Science — The Endless Frontier.” He compared federal funding for research to U.S. policy that opened the seas to clipper ships and furnished land to pioneers.
The rhetoric of American science as a boundless area for economic expansion is inspiring, promising steady resource flows as a return on our national investment in those audacious explorers who engage in basic scientific research. In light of a bill that members of Congress recently proposed requiring the National Science Foundation to prove that research would be in the national interest before funding it, supporters of science have more reason than ever to promote the connection between basic science and an American frontier myth.
But for all the excitement created by this language, there are serious drawbacks to framing science as the exploration of fertile new territory.
The image of the scientist as frontiersman is that of a risk-taking, masculine loner, with a Manifest Destiny to penetrate the unknown and a competitive desire to claim its riches before explorers from other nations can do the same.
Such an image is shortsighted. There are now more women than men in American colleges. The most pressing research questions facing scientists require an ability to work cooperatively with people from other nations on problems of global significance.
Worse, with this frontier analogy, ownership rights to intellectual territory get squeezed through a renewed Doctrine of Discovery. That was the legal regime in which those who were the first to discover and productively occupy new lands had the right to secure a title to that territory, whether or not others were already living there.
With the frontier analogy, the scientist and his investors are encouraged to stake a claim to biological territory with legal instruments like gene patents while neglecting the ownership rights of human subjects whose genomes are being mapped, or the indigenous people whose flora and fauna are being bioprospected.
Americans once dreamed about the promise of unlimited development when they faced that initially expansive, but ultimately limited, space of our literal frontier.
The frontier of science metaphor makes it seem possible once again. It led President Obama to proclaim “there are no limits.”
But there are limits. There are limits to resources and to time, both for scientists and for those who look to science for answers.
The promise of an endless scientific frontier is intoxicating, but it can lead us astray. Americans would do well to look for other language to convey the possibilities of science to a new generation.
Leah Ceccarelli is a professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington and author of the book “On the Frontier of Science: An American Rhetoric of Exploration and Exploitation.”